A culture of disbelief is traumatising asylum seekers!
People who have been persecuted because of their sexuality are facing Home Office officials who refuse to believe them, use explicit questioning and make stereotyped assumptions
A Ugandan man, Robert Kityo, was denied asylum last week on the basis that the Home Office wasn’t sufficiently convinced that he was gay. The question of evidence is the problem facing gay men and lesbians seeking protection in the UK because of persecution due to their sexuality. Often coming from one of the 80 countries where gay relationships are a criminal offence, they are faced with a culture of disbelief when they seek protection here.
It used to be the case that claims for asylum from gay men and lesbians were refused as the Home Office reasoned claimants could return to their home countries and just be discreet: refrain from same-sex relationships and hide their sexuality.
It took a case at the supreme court to overturn this. In the same way as you cannot be expected to hide your religion, the court said you couldn’t be expected to hide your sexuality.
Since then, the Home Office has changed tack in the way it refuses these asylum claims. Instead of telling applicants to be discreet, it just doesn’t believe them when they say they are gay.
So how do you prove you are gay? No one arrives in the UK with a certificate stating their sexuality, just as no one in the UK has such a certificate. Instead applicants have to rely on the believability of their oral testimony at their Home Office interview. At which stage your own feelings about your sexuality, your reluctance for it to be known publicly, your lack of words related to sexual issues (in English or your own language) all come into play. Plus having to relive the trauma of how you were persecuted.
And to compound this, research we at Asylum Aid did with Amnesty International UK all shows that the Home Office is using too rigorous a standard of proof.
Princess Oni from Nigeria has been through the asylum process herself. She told me that it is like a vicious circle. You find it hard to disclose the harm that’s happened to you and the reason for it and the Home Office official looks doubtful and repeats questions. This makes you feel more anxious and confused and speak less coherently, and the official disbelieves you further.
How much better if a circle of protection were used where the official believed the claimant – as is recommended in rape cases in the UK. Seeing encouragement from the official, claimants find it easier to speak out. Less stressed, they’re more likely to remember everything relevant to their case, and the evidence they provide will be more complete. This enables the official to assess their credibility more accurately and make a decision that is right first time.
At Asylum Aid we regularly provide legal representation for asylum applicants who have fled violence, imprisonment, discrimination and ostracism by the state and/or by their family simply because of their sexuality. We frontload these cases. This means we spend time taking down the applicant’s narrative, supporting them to tell us all the traumatic details. We supplement this with medical reports. And we obtain country reports – what is the current situation for gay men or lesbians in Uganda or Nigeria or Jamaica?
In rejecting Kityo’s case, the Home Office defended the guidance and training it has given its staff to deal with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex applicants. When compared with how LGBT cases are dealt with throughout Europe, it has a right to be proud of its guidance.
Our asylum system is forcing vulnerable teenagers to relive their trauma
However, our experience and that of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) is that that guidance is not routinely implemented, nor is the training. Despite the guidelines, UKLGIG’s research found Home Office officials using inappropriate and sexually explicit questioning and stereotyped assumptions about lesbian and gay relationships.
Lesbians interviewed by social researcher Claire Bennett talk about not being able to win in a system that feels like a game where the Home Office is trying to catch you out. Having a sexual identity that had been repressed for so long suddenly “outed” and then disbelieved is felt as a devastating blow.
One woman told Bennett, “It’s my life … And you look at me and you tell me that you don’t believe me … it’s almost as if you’re denying me my very existence.”
• Some names have been changed